If you like to garden, raise your dirty hand

March 30, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

I like to read about gardening more than I like to actually garden, so a book like Robin Chotzinoff's "People With Dirty Hands: The Passion for Gardening" (Harcourt Brace, 1997) is right up my alley.

What Chotzinoff offers is a collection of essays about some of the more off-beat gardeners she has made it a point to meet. Several of them, it turns out, live in California.

Chotzinoff lives outside Denver in town called Indian Hills in a log cabin. The growing season in Indian Hills in measured not in months or weeks but in days. Chotzinoff grew up in New York City and writes for Denver's alternative newspaper, Westword.

One cold February a few years ago - when it was the heart of winter in Colorado - she decided to welcome spring in early and came out to California for a few weeks. Descriptions of the people she met on that trip are collected in a chapter called "Winter: Bugs and Seeds."

First stop is hippie country outside Sebastopol where Chotzinoff tries to locate the publishers of an unusual catalog called Exotic Botanicals of the Jungle. The catalog offers mail-order seeds and plants whose side effects are allegedly similar to cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other recreational drugs. Chotzinoff just wants to talk. But when she locates what she thinks is the right redwood house with solar panels and a greenhouse, the woman who answers the door says she's never heard of Exotic Botanicals.

"Do you think you might remember who (the owners) are after I leave?" Chotzinoff asks.

"Probably," the woman at the door says evenly.

Oh, well. Chotzinoff fails to make that connection, but moves on to meet Doug Beck, president of California Garden Ladies. Beck lives a few miles outside Grass Valley and makes a living collecting and selling live ladybugs to gardeners. Ladybugs are revered by gardeners because of their wonderful diet - they eat aphids by the hundreds. Beck takes Chotzinoff on a ladybug hike in the woods.

"Beck is looking for an ideal situation: big trees at the edge of a clearing, where afternoon sun can warm the mulch at the base of the trunks. After a half hour he finds just such a place . Putting on his gloves, Beck begins to rummage through a foot-deep layer of composted leaves, twigs and dirt. Less than an inch down, he hits stratum after stratum of ladybugs. The bugs are slow-moving and a little annoyed.''

Beck sells thousands of gallons of live ladybugs each season. Once, on a particularly good day, he and his brother collected 176 gallons in a single outing.

Chotzinoff also visited the office staff in Felton, 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, that puts out her favorite seed catalog, Shepherd's.

"Reading through the Shepherd's catalog inspires in me more than the simple urge to spend a lot of money and overplant. It makes me want to coddle something precious and unusual , like a Baby Boo minipumpkin or a crop of Dutch carrots with the nice Puerto Rican name of Caramba. If I did, it wouldn't just be for show either. Every seed in this catalog is picked for taste."

Beth Benjamin, Renee Shepherd's right-hand woman, takes Chotzinoff on a tour of the cramped little offices and speaks wistfully of being too busy to garden.

"There's so much new to grow," she says. "Like the new arugula. It's deeply cut, beautiful. Renee ate it in Italy and had to have it. There's this tomato, Big Beef, and a whole bunch of new basils. Also flowering vines and Lavender Lady, a lavender you can really start from seed."

Chotzinoff says her trip to California changed her view of winter. What goes on in winter is not nothing, she decides, but a sort of holing up, preparation, seed-counting and planning.

She also writes about other characters on the gardening scene - like the ladies in Texas who prowl the countryside looking for hardy old strains of roses that survive in the wild. They call themselves the Texas Rose Rustlers.

And there's Bill Palmer in Colorado whose front yard is home to 450 tomato plants because as true tomato lovers know, it's impossible to enjoy the flavor of a store-bought tomato.

And there's more on Chotzinoff herself who patrols her garden on hot weekend afternoons in her "lucky garden clothes: weight belt, ancient skirted bathing suit, L.L. Bean duck-hunting boots." These people all have dirty hands - and a passion for gardening.

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